Monthly Archives: August 2017

State approves major new rules to cut carbon emissions

By David Abel, Boston Globe
August 11, 2017

A little more than a year after the state’s highest court ruled Massachusetts had to do more to cut carbon emissions, state officials Friday will issue sweeping new regulations that set specific limits on sources of greenhouse gases, the emissions linked to climate change. The new rules, swiftly criticized as insufficient by environmental advocates and unfair by the power industry, aim to reduce the state’s carbon emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, as required by state law. The tougher standards, which will focus on the transportation and energy sectors, could cause utility costs for ratepayers to climb as much as 2 percent a year, state officials said.

“Combatting and preparing for the impact of climate change remains a top priority of our administration,” Governor Charlie Baker said in a statement. “These regulations will help ensure the Commonwealth meets the rigorous emission reductions limits.”

The new regulations, which take effect in January, seek to reduce emissions from natural gas leaks, power plants, the state fleet of passenger vehicles, other parts of the transportation sector, and electrical system components. In a meeting with reporters on Thursday, Matthew Beaton, the state’s secretary of the energy and environmental affairs, said he was “very confident” the stricter emissions limits will allow the state to comply with the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, which mandated the 25 percent decline.

“We feel we’re in a good position to meet the immediate goals,” he said.

Energy and environmental officials said that, as of 2014, the state had already reduced emissions by 21 percent, a figure that environmental advocates dispute.
For that reason, some environmental advocates contend that the new rules don’t go nearly far enough and belie Baker’s pledge to intensify efforts to reduce emissions since President Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord in June.

Craig Altemose, executive director of 350 Mass, an environmental advocacy group in Cambridge, called them “weak regulations.’’ “This move shows Baker’s stance on climate is more posturing than policy,” he said.

But Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, said the rules “violate the intention and plain reading” of the 2008 law, which also required the state to reduce carbon emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

“In doing so, these regulations are expected to increase regional emissions and costs for consumers,” Dolan said. “That simply cannot be what was intended.”
Under the state’s plan, nearly 90 percent of emissions reductions will come from the electricity sector, although the state’s power plants have already reduced emissions by 60 percent since 1990, far more than any other sector, he said.

While the regulations might reduce emissions in Massachusetts, they could backfire by causing electricity production to be diverted to less efficient power plants outside the state that might use more polluting energy sources, such as coal or oil, Dolan has said.

“These regulations make the problem worse, not better,” he said.  Beaton noted the regulations mainly aim to comply with the 2020 requirements, and aggressive action is necessary to meet 2050’s targets. He also said Massachusetts needs to do more to reduce transportation emissions, which now account for more greenhouse gases than any other sector of the state’s economy.

“The whole world is wrestling with the transportation sector,” Beaton said. “We are cognizant that we won’t hit our 2050 goals without transportation.”
State officials said they’ve been working with other states, as well as provinces in Canada, on regional solutions to reducing transportation emissions. The state has already joined others in the region in a pledge to register 300,000 electric vehicles by 2050; the state has 11,000 electric vehicles, or less than 1 percent of all registered vehicles in Massachusetts.

The rules also require utility companies and other power providers to obtain 16 percent of their energy from clean sources, such as wind and solar, in 2018. That requirement will increase by 2 percentage points a year until 2050, when 80 percent of their power must come from emissions-free sources. The state’s remaining 21 fossil fuel power plants will be required to cut emissions from nearly 9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2018 to 1.8 million metric tons in 2050. The regulations also require the state Department of Transportation to set specific, declining annual limits on emissions from their vehicles. Utilities will be required to set similar, declining limits on methane leaks from natural gas mains.

Advocates from the Conservation Law Foundation, whose 2014 lawsuit led to last year’s ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court, had mixed feelings about the state’s regulations. He noted that the regulations exempt 44 town-owned utilities — which are responsible for about 15 percent of the state’s electricity supply — from the requirement to buy an increasing amount of renewable energy every year.

“While we’re disappointed that these regulations exempt these towns from having to purchase clean energy, they do put the commonwealth as a whole back on track to meet our near-term carbon pollution limits and establish a clean, renewable energy future,” said David Ismay, a senior attorney at the foundation, which is in Boston. Other advocates said they were concerned about the lack of emissions caps between 2020 and 2050, and urged the Legislature to set interim requirements for reducing carbon emissions in 2030 and 2040.

“This will ensure that this and future administrations constantly focus on emission reductions as statutory requirements and not as aspirations,” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy at Mass Audubon.  Beaton noted that the administration has already set targets for 2020 and 2030, but he declined to say whether the administration would support the bill that would make the targets legal obligations.

ISO-NE draft report: Market revenues not sufficient for new resource development

by Robert Walton, Utility Dive
August 7, 2017

Dive Brief:
• The draft version of an ISO-New England study on resource expansion scenarios concludes wholesale energy markets will not be sufficient to keep new resources economically viable, absent additional revenues.

• The draft also finds that renewable energy will reduce the need for natural gas, but gas-fired units will still set the marginal cost in both 2025 and 2030.

• The grid operator stresses the study, “2016 NEPOOL Scenario Analysis,” is not a final document and specific figures could change. ISO-NE has given stakeholders until Aug. 23 to provide comment.

New resources “will require sources of revenue in addition to the wholesale energy market to remain economically viable,” ISO-NE expects.

» Read the full article

» 2016 NEPOOL Scenario Analysis


Scientists Fear Trump Will Dismiss Blunt Climate Report

By LISA FRIEDMAN, New York Times
August 7, 2017

WASHINGTON — The average temperature in the United States has risen rapidly and drastically since 1980, and recent decades have been the warmest of the past 1,500 years, according to a sweeping federal climate change report awaiting approval by the Trump administration.

The draft report by scientists from 13 federal agencies, which has not yet been made public, concludes that Americans are feeling the effects of climate change right now. It directly contradicts claims by President Trump and members of his cabinet who say that the human contribution to climate change is uncertain, and that the ability to predict the effects is limited.

“Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans,” a draft of the report states. A copy of it was obtained by The New York Times.

The authors note that thousands of studies, conducted by tens of thousands of scientists, have documented climate changes on land and in the air. “Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate change,” they wrote.

The report was completed this year and is a special science section of the National Climate Assessment, which is congressionally mandated every four years. The National Academy of Sciences has signed off on the draft report, and the authors are awaiting permission from the Trump administration to release it.

One government scientist who worked on the report, Katharine Hayhoe, a professor of political science at Texas Tech University, called the conclusions among “the most comprehensive climate science reports” to be published. Another scientist involved in the process, who spoke to The New York Times on the condition of anonymity, said he and others were concerned that it would be suppressed.

“It’s a fraught situation,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geoscience and international affairs at Princeton University who was not involved in the study. “This is the first case in which an analysis of climate change of this scope has come up in the Trump administration, and scientists will be watching very carefully to see how they handle it.”

Scientists say they fear that the Trump administration could change or suppress the report. But those who challenge scientific data on human-caused climate change say they are equally worried that the draft report, as well as the larger National Climate Assessment, will be publicly released.

» Read the full article

Read the climate report

U.S. Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Rrport (CSSR)

» Fifth-Order (Final) Draft
June 28, 2017

Senate confirms two energy commission nominees, restoring quorum

by Devin Henry, the Hill
August 3, 2017

The Senate voted Thursday evening to confirm two of President Trump’s nominees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), paving the way for the commission to have its first quorum in six months.

Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson were confirmed by unanimous consent and are slated to join the five-member board, which has seen its action paused since February following a pair of retirements.

FERC is responsible for permitting decisions on energy projects like natural gas pipelines and export terminals. The lack of a quorum has left FERC unable to move such projects forward, inaction that has lead to frustration in the energy, manufacturing and business communities.

Neither Chatterjee nor Powelson were considered controversial picks. Chatterjee is an energy aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Powelson is a Pennsylvania utilities regulator.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee advanced both their nominations in June on 20-3 votes. Democrats, though, have been hesitant to bring their nominations to the floor for confirmation votes until they were assured a Democratic nominee would receive a vote, as well.

The White House filed paperwork for Democrat Richard Glick’s nomination on Wednesday. Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) announced Thursday she would hold a September hearing for Glick’s nomination and that of Kevin McIntrye, whom Trump has picked to be chair of the commission.

Democrat Cheryl LaFleur is the only current member of FERC. Former Commissioner Colette Honorable and former Chairman Norman Bay left the commission earlier this year.

» Read the original story

Utility Helps Wean Vermonters From the Electric Grid

Green Mountain Power is trying to turn homes, neighborhoods and towns
into virtual power plants, driven by economics as well as environmental goals

JULY 29, 2017

WALTHAM, Vt. — In a new low-income development that replaced a trailer park here, rooftop solar panels sparkle in the sun while backup batteries quietly hum away in utility closets. About an hour away, in Rutland, homes and businesses along a once-distressed corridor are installing the latest in energy-saving equipment, including special insulation and heat pumps.

And throughout Vermont, customers are signing up for a new program that will allow them to power their homes while entirely disconnected from the grid.
The projects are part of a bold experiment aimed at turning homes, neighborhoods and towns into virtual power plants, able to reduce the amount of energy they draw from the central electric system. But behind them are not green energy advocates or proponents of living off the land. Instead, it’s the local electric company, Green Mountain Power.

Each unit of the McKnight Lane development in Waltham, Vt., has solar panels installed on the roof. Credit Jacob Hannah for The New York Times
Even as the Trump administration has broken with almost all the world’s nations by renouncing the Paris climate accord, the Vermont program offers just one example of the continuing efforts at the local level to rethink a largely carbon-based power system. The initiatives are driven by financial advantages as well as environmental ones.

Green Mountain’s chief executive, Mary Powell, sees the program here as the best way to please customers while making the system more environmentally and physically sustainable.

“Customers, especially in Vermont with the energy-independence values that people have, want to move more toward self-generation,” she said, seated in a bright orange modernist chair in a meeting area in the company’s open-plan headquarters near Burlington.
“The opportunity for us,” she added, is to lead the transformation of an electric system that depends on power sent along big transmission lines “to a community-, home- and business-based energy system.”

As a practical matter, the less electricity the utility pulls from the regional transmission system, especially at times of peak demand, the less it has to pay in fees, producing savings it can pass on to customers. One way it does this is by remotely controlling the batteries installed through its programs, drawing upon the stored energy as needed.

Recently, Ms. Powell said, Green Mountain used this method to take the low-income development here off the grid’s electricity supply for two hours, saving an estimated $275 in transmission costs while the homes were powered by solar panels or battery storage. The amount saved was small, but such savings could add up over a year if they were realized in enough locations.

The utility, owned by Gaz Métro, a leading natural gas distributor in Quebec, is also working to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions as part of the effort to slow global warming. In 2014, it became a B Corporation. That is a voluntary designation, requiring executives to take into account not just how decisions will affect profit and shareholders, but also how they will affect the public, generally defined as society or the environment.

As part of that mission, Green Mountain became the first utility to offer customers access to Tesla’s Powerwall home battery system when it was released in 2015. Now it is starting a new program, announced in May, that will offer the battery to as many as 2,000 customers for $15 a month over 10 years, or a one-time payment of $1,500. The package will include software and a Nest thermostat, which conserves electricity by adjusting temperatures to comings and goings as well as established routines.

The idea is that customers, especially when they have solar panels, heat pumps and electric vehicles, will be better able to monitor and manage their energy use. The utility, using Tesla’s software, will be able to call upon the stored energy in the combined batteries to help meet surges in demand, or to sell it on the wholesale market to help balance or smooth out fluctuations within the region.

The efforts have won plaudits from national green-energy advocates who see the utility as a leader in helping redesign the electric system, which is undergoing enormous changes as renewable sources of energy become more popular and other technologies give customers more control. Many utilities see such moves as an existential threat because their profits come mainly from getting a set rate of return that is factored into customer rates.

But Green Mountain Power has “figured out a way to do well and do good in the utility business and keep its regulators, investors and customers all happy at the same time,” said Dan Reicher, executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford and a customer of the utility through a family home in Vermont. “That’s a big deal these days when the rest of the industry is talking about a death spiral.”

Ms. Powell, 56, grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and attended a public high school focused on the arts. She came to the company in 1998 after turning down the job three times. She just couldn’t see herself working for a utility, she said, especially one whose traditional corporate culture was visible in the imposing stone lobby and slate steps that led to the chief executive’s office, hidden behind two private secretaries and outfitted with its own bathroom and shower.

The family on her father’s side — he was an actor and a model for the fisherman on Gorton’s seafood packages — had roots in the state, so she had grown up spending summers there. (Her brother, Michael Powell, is a sports columnist at The New York Times.) After college, she became a technical writer for a money-market fund in New York, working her way up to associate director of operations over the next seven years.

She grew disenchanted with working in finance, so when a house-sitting opportunity in Vermont came up, she and her fiancé quit their jobs and headed north. She figured she would work as a waitress, she said, but ended up taking jobs at a couple of banks and starting a few businesses — including one selling reflective gear for dogs that her husband now runs — that ultimately led to her joining the utility.

First, she tackled the company culture, moving executives from the boxy glass headquarters to the 1980s brick service center, where she works at a stand-up desk in a cluster including other executives as well as the linemen. The office, decorated with reclaimed wood, bright colors and relics of past electric systems, looks more suited to a Silicon Valley start-up than to a typical corporate utility, complete with a treadmill and table-tennis setup in one section and a cluster of fledgling entrepreneurs, winners of an incubator competition, in another.

Then she began trying to make the generating system greener, which led to the move toward a more decentralized system, something few other utilities have tried with such enthusiasm. But in an industry known for caution, Green Mountain can be nimble, in part because it is so small — just 265,000 customers — and has a relatively receptive customer base.

A program that helps provide energy-efficiency upgrades in Rutland, for instance, got its start with a single call. At a weekly leadership team meeting, Ms. Powell asked executives to find a way to bring several technologies together in one dwelling.

One executive asked Rutland’s mayor if he knew of a family that would be willing to serve as a guinea pig. He suggested Mark and Sara Borkowski, whose century-old house became the first of 161 homes and businesses to take part. Under the program, the utility provides financing for energy upgrades, which participants can pay back over time through their monthly bills.

Green Mountain has still invested in large-scale renewable-power plants, like the Stafford Hill Solar Farm — 11 acres of solar panels and battery banks spread over a landfill behind a town dump — and two wind farms. Those developments have come in for criticism from some residents and officials who object to living near noisy industrial machines and worry about marring the natural beauty that draws residents and visitors to the state. The critics include Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican who opposes putting wind turbines along mountain ridges.

But many customers say they are happy to be part of greening the area’s energy supply, whether for the financial savings, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow global warming, or just to make sure the lights stay on in a power failure.

“It’s not really any different than being anywhere else,” said Alexis LaBerge, 27, who was one of the first to move into the low-income development in Waltham from an old house that guzzled fuel to keep the house and hot water heated. Now, when the power from the grid goes out, as it did one night this spring, she does not have to worry about food spoiling in the refrigerator. “It’s definitely nice being brand-new and having the backup,” she said.